Trends in total fertility rates (TFR) of selected East Asian countries, 1995–2012 (Jones 2007, Table 1) Note: Updated from official sources for each country; 1998 and 2010 were Years of the Tiger in the Chinese zodiac cycle, indicated by dotted lines in the figure; 2000 and 2012 were Years of the Dragon, indicated by solid lines
Trend in Singlehood
To understand low fertility in Asian countries we need to understand the changing economic and social conditions in these countries and the way they influence the perceived desirability and feasibility of building a family. The focus is typically on the pressures on married couples, with insufficient attention given to the factors influencing whether people marry in the first place. It is important to understand the reasons behind the marriage trends because marriage is essentially the gatekeeper to childbirth in these societies, with fewer than 2 % of children born outside marriage (Frejka et al. 2010, fn. 10).2 And in all of these countries, singlehood has been sharply rising over the period of declining and low fertility. It has been estimated that in Singapore over the period 1990–2005, declines in proportions married were responsible for one-third of the decline to ultra-low levels of fertility (Koh 2011).
Figure 3.2 illustrates the rising trend of singlehood at ages 30–34. The trend in this age group is consistent with evidence for other age groups (e.g., 35–39) and with the singulate mean age at marriage (SMAM). Singapore stands out from the other countries in that while its proportion of singles has been increasing, the rise has been much more modest than in South Korea or Taiwan. In 2010, Singapore had the lowest proportion of singles among these countries, for both women and men—a notable reversal of the situation two decades earlier. At ages 30–34, the proportion of single women in Singapore was 25.1 % while the proportion of single men was 37.1 %. Hong Kong and Taiwan are leading the trend in rising singlehood for both men and women. Both South Korea and Taiwan experienced a rapid increase within the 10 years from 2000 to 2010.
What Is Driving Trends in Fertility?
In order to assess the likely impact of pro-natalist policies, it is necessary to understand the reasons why fertility has reached such a low level. There is a considerable literature on this,3 which we will not attempt to summarize in detail here, but we will simply note what appear to be the key reasons in the countries under discussion. These countries are consumerist societies, stressing achievement and upward social mobility above all else (see Chang 2010 on South Korea). They are vastly wealthier than they were four or five decades ago, when parents routinely had four or five children. Nowadays, paradoxically, many feel a sense of relative deprivation, which means that aspirations can only be met by both parents working. The financial and opportunity costs of raising children are considerable, particularly as parents face enormous pressure for their children to succeed in education. In this competitive education “arms race,” in the context of limited parental time and financial resources, the “quality/quantity trade-off” comes down heavily in favor of quality.
Strong familism and patriarchy characterize these societies. Economic development and social modernization clash with traditionalism in the household. As a result, women face conflicting roles in balancing work and family life. Access to childcare services is limited, and working women face the tradition of long working hours and a work environment often unfriendly to the need for flexible hours and childcare leave. These are highly urbanized societies, with long travel times to work coupled with limited and expensive housing to meet the needs of larger families.
Given the many dilemmas that are part and parcel of marrying in these societies (the notion of a “marriage package,” as described by Bumpass and colleagues (2009) in Japan, is equally relevant here), it is small wonder that there is increasingly later and less marriage. Aside from volitional reasons, non-volitional factors are also operating, including the inadequate replacement of traditional matchmaking systems, and continued hypergamy and homogamy, leading to a marriage squeeze for certain groups. The combination of a rise in age at marriage, a situation where 15 % of women will be permanently removed from the reproductive population by non-marriage (probably within 10 years), and continuing high levels of divorce bodes ill for any substantial rise in fertility. Furthermore, there is little indication of a trend toward more cohabitation, and even less so of acceptance of childbearing in cohabiting relationships—trends that have propped up fertility rates in many Western countries.
Policy Development: Singapore’s Switch from Anti-natalism to Pro-natalism
Singapore achieved self-government in 1957, entered the Federation of Malaysia in 1963, but left the Federation to become a separate, independent state in 1965. Facing very high fertility levels combined with uncertainties about the political and economic future of what was considered an over-populated island, the government introduced a national population-control program, passing the Singapore Family Planning and Population Act in 1965 and establishing the Singapore Family Planning and Population Board in 1966. A series of anti-natalist measures were introduced, including the Voluntary Sterilization Act in 1969, as well as a set of incentives and disincentives to encourage small families in 1972. Some of the measures introduced and implemented during the anti-natalist period included the reduction of income tax relief to cover only three children, lowering of priority for primary school admission for fourth-order and above children, elimination of the housing subsidy for large families, and limitation of paid maternity leave to first and second births (Sun 2012, p. 63).
The pace of fertility decline that followed was one of the most rapid in the world. It was widely attributed to the anti-natalist policies, although many other factors were clearly involved. Although Singapore’s fertility reached replacement level in 1975, the anti-natalist policies were kept in place until 1983. Then in 1984, the state implemented selective pro-natalist policies, described as the “eugenic phase” of Singapore’s population policy. Educated women were given incentives to reproduce under the “Graduate Mother Scheme,” while sterilization cash incentives were offered to less educated women (Straughan et al. 2009, p. 184; Saw 2005, p. 212). These policies proved to be very unpopular with broad sections of the public. They were abandoned in 1985, followed by the closure of the Singapore Family Planning and Population Board in 1986. The following year (1987), the fertility policy in Singapore took on a broadly pro-natalist stance, with the introduction of both slogans and policies to support having three or more children based on affordability. This stance has shaped Singapore’s fertility policy until the present, with various policies to increase fertility introduced and strengthened over the years.
There was an interval of 15 years between the time fertility first dipped below replacement level and the introduction of pro-natalist policies directed at the population as a whole. As the pioneer in fertility decline in the region, with a history of strong and effective anti-natalist policies, it is perhaps not surprising that there was hesitation to reverse these policies until it was clear that no resurgence in fertility was likely. The subsequent history of policy reversals in other Asian countries shows that Singapore was no exception in delaying its policy reversal (see Table 3.1).
Delays in reversing anti-natalist policies, selected East Asian countries
Year in which replacement fertility was reached
Year in which anti-natalist policy was reversed
Number of years elapsed
Percent below replacement when policy reversed
Selective pro-natalist policies for highly educated
More general pro-natalist measures
Very mildly pro-natalist policies
More serious pro-natalist measures
Pro-natalist statement but no measures
Specific pro-natalist measures introduced
Mildly pro-natalist measures
Angel plan introduced in 1994, revised in 1999; more forceful pro-natalist measures
25–30 % below replacement in 2013; policy modified to allow only child to have two children after marrying
The Development of Singapore’s Pro-natalist Policies
Policies emphasizing larger families and early family formation were implemented during the late 1980s to the late 1990s. Some of the measures and incentives that were introduced included subsidized childcare, tax rebates for third children, and public housing schemes encouraging early family formation and larger families, such as the Fiancé/ Fiancée Scheme, the Parenthood Priority Scheme, and other schemes for first-time married couples.
Then, in 2000, the government introduced a number of new policies and revisions. Importantly, the Baby Bonus Scheme was introduced. This two-tiered system involved distribution of cash benefits on the birth of second and third children. It also included a co-savings arrangement set up by the government, which was payable over a 6-year period, with maximum contributions capped at S$6,000 for the second child and S$12,000 for the third child.4 This co-saving could be used for all children. Tax rebates, which were offered only to the third child in 1987 and to the third and fourth child in 1989, were extended to include the second child. Singapore’s total fertility rate (TFR) continued to decline from 2001 to 2003, however, despite the introduction of these and a variety of other incentives aimed at encouraging marriage and childbearing. The TFR fell from 1.61 children per woman in 1997 to 1.25 in 2003.5
In 2004, the Baby Bonus Scheme was extended to include the birth of first and fourth children, when S$3,000 and S$6,000 were given to parents. This cash gift was distributed in five instalments over an 18-month period as opposed to over 6 years previously. In 2008, the payout to first and second children was raised from S$3,000 to S$4,000.
Since 2003, Singapore’s TFR has stayed in the 1.2 region, with minor changes until 2010, when it fell slightly lower to 1.16. This could be because 2010 was a Year of the Tiger, which is considered to be inauspicious for birth in the Chinese zodiac cycle. In the following year, the rate rose marginally to 1.20 and in 2012—a Year of the Dragon—it went up to 1.29 (see Fig. 3.1).
Policies were further boosted in January 2013 in the form of a Marriage and Parenthood Package, aimed at helping Singaporeans “to form families and raise children” (NPTD 2013a). This enhanced package includes giving priority in the assignment of a first-time public-housing apartment to couples who have children. It also includes enhancing Co-Funding for Assisted Reproduction Technology (ART) Treatment, waiving accouchement fees in public hospitals to all mothers irrespective of the birth order of the child, extending paid childcare leave, and introducing paid adoption leave, 1 week paid paternity leave, and shared parental leave (see Appendix for details of policy enhancements).
Categories of Pro-natalist Policies in Singapore
McDonald (2002), citing Heitlinger (1991), categorized fertility policies under:
Support for parents to combine work and family
Broad social change supportive of children and parenting
Policies to influence marriage are not specifically included here. Although marriage is affected by fertility desires,6 thus being affected by all the above elements of fertility policy, there are other factors influencing whether people marry. One way to think of factors affecting marriage is to divide reasons for not marrying into volitional and non-volitional categories. Singapore has had specific policies to influence marriage, and the government clearly considers marriage policy important in its armory of policies to influence fertility. Marriage policies will therefore be included as a fourth type of pro-natalist policy.
Lump-sum payments or loans, tax rebates, subsidized or free services and goods for children, and housing subsidies fall under the category of financial incentives. Singapore has implemented all four of these types of policy. With the introduction of the two-tiered Baby Bonus Scheme in 2000, the Singapore government began offering cash payments to parents. In 2013, the amount offered was increased to S$6,000 (up from S$4,000 previously) for the birth of a first or second child and S$8,000 (up from S$6,000 previously) for the birth of a third or fourth child. The cash grant is given only through the birth of the fourth child. It is now fully disbursed earlier, within 12 months of the child’s birth as compared to 18 months previously.
The scheme also involves setting up a Child Development Account (CDA), which is essentially a co-savings arrangement between parents and the Singapore government. When it started in 2000, only second and third children were eligible, and the duration of the CDA was 6 years. Since 2008, the government will match dollar-for-dollar the amount saved by parents for first- and second-born children, up to a maximum of S$6,000 each. For third- and fourth-born children, the government contribution is capped at S$12,000 each, and for fifth-born children and beyond, the contribution is capped at S$18,000 (Ministry of Social and Family Development 2013). In 2013, the duration of the CDA was extended for another 6 years, enabling parents to receive matching contributions until a child turns 12, but the maximum levels of government contributions remain unchanged.
Singapore also offers tax rebates for working mothers and various housing-subsidy schemes (see Appendix for details). The government does not offer much in the way of free or subsidized services or goods for children, however. Services include education, dental and medical care, while goods could include textbooks or leisure and sporting equipment (McDonald 2002, p. 437).
In early 2013, Singapore introduced a Medisave Grant for newborns. Medisave falls under the Central Provident Fund (CPF). Under this scheme, a CPF Medisave account is opened for each newborn citizen, and a Medisave grant of S$3,000 is deposited. The first S$1,500 is deposited after birth registration, and the remaining S$1,500 is deposited in the subsequent year, provided that the child remains enrolled in MediShield or a Medisave-approved Integrated Shield Plan.
Support for Combining Work and Family
Under the category of support for combining work and family, McDonald (2002, pp. 438–42) listed childcare, flexible working hours, anti-discrimination legislation, and gender equity in employment practices. Singapore increased paid maternity leave from 8 to 12 weeks in 2004 and from 12 to 16 weeks in 2008. In 2013, the government introduced a 1-week paternity leave and allowed the father to take an additional week out of his wife’s 16-week maternity leave under a new “Shared Parental Leave” scheme. Paid adoption leave of 4 weeks was introduced in 2004 and made mandatory in 2013. In order to facilitate alternative childcare arrangements, the government offers grandparent caregiver relief, domestic worker levy relief, and childcare subsidies. A 5-day work week was introduced in 2004 for government-employed civil servants, although total working hours were held constant, thus requiring extended working hours on the five working days (see Appendix for details of policies).
Broad Social Change Supportive of Children and Parenting
Under broad social change supportive of children and parenting, McDonald (2002, pp. 440–42) listed employment initiatives, child-friendly environments, gender equity, marriage and relationship supports, followed by development of positive social attitudes toward children and parenting. Singapore introduced the “Work-Life Works” Fund in 2004, under which private-sector firms can apply for grants to defray the cost of introducing measures that would help employees achieve better work-life harmony. Although this was a good introductory move, the implementation is left largely to the employers’ discretion. In light of other opportunity costs and market considerations, it might not necessarily be in the interest of competitive private companies (especially small and medium enterprises—SMEs) to implement this new program.
Rising singlehood has been one of the major direct causes of fertility decline in Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, and Singapore. Singlehood is particularly high in cities and for well-educated women. In the younger adult ages, there are now few women with primary-school education or less, so the key comparison is between the high-school and tertiary educated. In all four countries, delayed and non-marriage is considerably higher for tertiary-educated women.
As early as 1984, Singapore had identified rising singlehood, especially among its well-educated women, as an issue to be addressed and began setting up agencies to provide match-making services. The services and range of activities offered through the Social Development Network (SDN) are now varied, sophisticated, and Internet-based. Services include personalized matchmaking, overseas trips, and engagement with the private sector through accreditation of dating agencies.7 It is difficult to assess whether the claims for success of the SDN are well justified, however. Statistics published to indicate that a substantial number of Singaporeans who were registered with the SDN eventually married cannot address the counterfactual—how many of these people would have married anyway in the absence of the government’s programs (Jones 2012, p. 324)?
The two other key ways in which Singapore has influenced the incidence of marriage are through housing policy and the policy on granting Permanent Residence (PR) status. Singlehood is discouraged by eligibility rules for Housing and Development Board (HDB) apartments, in which about 85 % of Singaporeans live. Singles must be over 35 to be eligible to purchase this form of subsidized housing. Also, various housing inducements are offered to Singaporeans planning to marry, all of them directed toward shortening the waiting time for apartments or widening the scope for this group to buy or rent an apartment (for details, see Jones 2012, pp. 323–4). As for PR status, permanent residents in their 30s are twice as likely to be married as Singapore citizens, suggesting that the government’s criteria for approval of permanent-residence applications may, in part, be aimed at raising the proportion married (Jones 2012, p. 325).8
One point should be made about policy developments in Singapore. The government has consulted the public widely, particularly in recent years, before introducing changes in family policy. The National Population and Talent Division, which is now responsible for population policy, had a program of wide community consultation before introducing the new measures in 2013. Sociologist Paulin Straughan, who also served a term as an appointed Member of Parliament, noted that the new measures gave a message to the Singapore population that the government prizes a pro-family and gender-equal environment as much as it does a competitive, business-friendly climate. One intention of the policies, she said, “was to set the ideological tone, to say very boldly that the government stands behind family formation” (Chang 2013).
Timing and Nature of Policies: Comparison between Singapore, South Korea, and Taiwan
It is interesting to take a cross-sectional snapshot of fertility policies in the region as of 1995. Keep in mind that fertility rates in 1995 were well below replacement level in Singapore, South Korea, and Taiwan and at ultra-low levels (TFR below 1.5) in Japan. Singapore had begun promoting the formation of families in 1987, and by 1995 Singapore had more pro-natalist policies in place than the other countries. In fact, it had been 8 years since the Singapore government had introduced income-tax relief, tax rebates, childcare subsidies, and housing subsidies for larger families. By the early 1990s, housing incentives to encourage early family formation included HDB’s Fiancé/Fiancée Scheme, under which couples intending to marry could register for an apartment together and marry within 3 months of taking possession. This scheme aimed to enable couples to have a ready home upon marriage. In 1990, the Domestic Worker Levy Relief was introduced to encourage working mothers to continue working while having someone to take care of their child. Despite all these pro-family and pro-fertility measures, however, fertility continued to decline.
Both Taiwan and South Korea reached replacement level fertility in 1984 but by 1995 had no pro-natalist policies in place. The Taiwanese government had made a pro-natalist statement but had not introduced any concrete measures. It was only in 2006 that both Taiwan and South Korea implemented their respective pro-natalist policies.
The South Korean government was very slow to reverse its anti-natalist policies. In 2002, the Noh Mu-Hyeon government took a step toward initiating pro-natalist policies, but it took a few more years for the policies to actually be implemented. At this time, South Korea’s TFR was the lowest in the world, declining in 2005 to 1.08 (Lee 2009, p. 57). It was only in 2006, however, that the South Korean government announced an integrated package, the “Saeromaji Plan 2010,” which comprised a variety of pro-natalist measures (Suzuki 2008, p. 37). These measures included tax rebates, expansion of maternity and childcare leave, and improvement of childcare services. South Korea was not able to offer a universal child allowance, however, due to budget constraints.
Taiwan’s TFR started declining gradually from 1995, but in the 1998 Year of the Tiger, it declined drastically—to 1.47 from 1.77 in 1997. Beside the Year of Tiger being inauspicious for birth, the financial crisis of 1997 also contributed to this decline. In the following 2 years, the TFR rose slightly, then declined sharply again in 2001, to 1.40 from 1.68 in 2000. Following this decline, Taiwan’s TFR has declined consistently, with the exception of the years 2005–2007 when it remained at 1.12. In the 2010 Year of the Tiger, Taiwan’s TFR plunged to 0.89, probably the lowest level of fertility ever reached in any country with a population in excess of ten million. As in South Korea, Taiwan had no pro-natalist policies until 2006, when measures such as maternity and parental leave and a childcare subsidy system were introduced under the “Mega Warmth Social Welfare Program” (Freijka et al. 2010, p. 599). This was followed by the 2008 White Book of Population Policy. Since the introduction of these measures, the TFR has yet to increase significantly, although the increase to 1.26 in the 2012 Year of the Dragon raises hope that the inevitable subsequent decline will still leave fertility somewhat higher than it was before.
Clearly Singapore was a little faster than Taiwan or South Korea in reacting to a fertility decline and beginning to reverse its anti-natalist policies. But now that both South Korea and Taiwan have had pro-natalist measures in place for some years, it is worth comparing the similarities and differences between their policies, those of Japan, and those of Singapore. Singapore’s policy of financial incentives has been expanded over time and now is clearly the most comprehensive among the four countries. On the birth of a child, Japan offers a cash payment of 10,000 yen (roughly US$100) monthly until the child turns three. The Japanese government does not offer large tax deductions for children, however (Frejka et al. 2010, p. 598). Neither Taiwan nor South Korea offers cash payments, the former due to feminist protests and the latter due to budgetary constraints, although South Korea has lower taxes for large families or families with young children.